Friday, August 12, 2016

Wrapped up in Paper

Copyright © Edward Riojas
Arches watermark near
the sheet’s deckled edge

Like all artists, I appreciate a fine sheet of paper. You can have your ream of 8 1/2 by 11 goldenrod – I prefer something much larger that is hand-made, with a natural deckle and a watermark in the corner. Artists get snobbish that way.

In order to produce excellent art, one must start with excellent material. In the case of paper, that means spending extra to obtain a sheet made by methods honed for more than a thousand years. Put away thoughts of deforestation and think “rags.” Today that might come in something made from 100% cotton rag. In years past, a similar product might be linen-based.

Papermaking at one time moved in a completely different orbit. The language was equally foreign. The process included retting, bucking, souring and stamping. “Improvements” came in the form of the Hollander beater. Among those employed at paper mills were sorters, vatters, couchers (pronounced "coochers") and glaziers. Sure, papermaking necessitated fibrous material and water, but don’t forget gelatin made from rabbits and eels or, in cheaper products, the feet and ears of oxen and cartilage from old animals.
Close-up of a Fabriano screen,
showing how its watermark
is attached

Speaking of animals, don’t confuse paper with other materials that serve a similar purpose. Parchment is the laboriously-processed hide of young mammals, and vellum is the same made exclusively from calfskin. Of course, these names annoyingly find their way as labels for specialty paper made from, of all things, trees.

Papyrus technically isn’t paper, either. It is more like a very delicate plywood, in that it’s fibrous layers run in perpendicular directions to each other. Paper fibers, on the other hand, are random in orientation. And, yes, you can easily find paper with a linen finish, but it contains no linen at all. It’s confusing, I know.

Although the Church at one time banned paper for its manuscripts as being produced by those outside Christendom, its use was eventually embraced when Gutenberg's little invention pressed it into use.
Vintage sheet of Watman paper,
with its watermark and
screen pattern

Paper production spread from its origins in the East, wended its way through the Middle East, and became established in mills of Spain and France. Linen rags were recycled for papermaking, and remained the main source for paper manufacturing until the late 1700s. During most of the 1800s, cotton overtook linen as the rag of choice because of its abundance, but increasing demand for paper made mill owners nervous about raw materials. Eventually, they turned to the forests.

During the late 1800s, however, a handful of American industrialists eyed an untapped, abundant source for the superior linen. Proprietors of mills along the Eastern seaboard, including Gardiner, Maine and Broadalbin, New York, looked toward Egypt. It was the same place that would soon come under the rule of the British Crown, and the same place which had long piqued the interest of Western archaeologists and opportunists. (Sometimes they were one and the same.) While there is little evidence of its production – excepting an oddly-colored handout produced by the Chelsea Manufacturing Co. in Greenville, Conn. – there is certainly much talk of linen paper being produced from enough raw material to satiate the U.S. demand for 14 years, using linen from – of all things – a then-estimated 500 million Egyptian mummies.

Detail of an oddly-colored handout produced by the Chelsea Manufacturing Co.,  Greenville, Conn.

No comments:

Post a Comment